This is Belle Point at Fort Smith National Historic Site. It marks the confluence of the Arkansas and the Poteau (pronounced POE-doe) Rivers. On the tenth of December 1832, 22-year-old Albert Pike paid his last few coins to a bargeman to ferry him down the Poteau out of Indian Territory to this rock at the western edge of the United States. Young Pike was at the end of a two-year Wild West adventure that had deprived him of a fortune. He had been the victim of bad advice, bad business deals, bad company, bad weather, bad planning, bad luck and bad everything else. When he arrived in Arkansas, he had nothing but the education that he bookended with his ears.
Albert was fruit of one of the less prominent branches of an illustrious Massachusetts family tree that included the famous Zebulon Pike, who explored the wild west somewhat more successfully than had Albert. Pike was the oldest of six children of Benjamin and Sarah. Dad was a cobbler, farmer and jack-of-all-trades who managed to provide a modest living for a large family.
Pike was a precocious kid, a voracious and absorbtive reader with an intellect that surprised his well-heeled relatives. He only slept four or five hours a night, and with regular farmwork he cultivated the physical strength and endurance for which he was to become famous.
Under the tutelage of his cousin Alfred Pike, Albert passed the exam to enter Harvard but didn't have the cash for the up-front fees they demanded. He went to work as a schoolteacher to earn the money and meanwhile studied to take the exam to enter as a junior. He passed that one, too, but in addition to asking for junior and senior fees in advance, Harvard also asked for freshman and sophomore fees. Pike balked at being asked to pay for classes he hadn't attended, not to mention being asked to pay for four years of college in a lump sum in advance, and so he took all the cash he had saved and headed west to make a name for himself.
It wasn't exactly as simple as all that. There was a girl involved, one of a higher social class, and Pike thought that he could prove himself in the west, accomplish great deeds, make his fortune, acquire property and reputation and thereby become worthy of her. Needless to say he never saw her again after leaving the east coast, but he was a kid in the age of Coleridge and he took all that romantic poetry seriously.
Going west wised him up in a hurry. There's nothing like an Indian raid or a case of frostbite to distract a romantic from his introspective sturm und drang.
So there he was in Fort Smith, a highly self-educated, penniless young man recovering from malaria, infection and exposure. His traveling companions, impatient to rediscover civilization, left him behind. Pike briefly considered farming as a livelihood, but found the conditions very meager and the political situation on the frontier was so fluid that a farmer might work for years improving land only to find his claim in doubt as juris dictions changed with treaties made with the Indians or the Spanish.
I've been struggling with this Pike material for a long time, and I still haven't found a good way to present it in a good one-sitting essay. He is an extraordinarily complex and active figure in history and a chronological biographical sketch tends to confuse and dilute each of his careers. Therefore, I've decided to write a series of sketches isolating each of his careers, soldier, journalist, poet, planter, mason, scholar, jurist, political party boss, educator, and so on.
Realize as you read that these are all artificial divisions. I think they make the material seem more coherent and easier to digest. To take any sketch in isolation gives an incomplete and superficial notion of what Albert Pike means to our history. So from this point on I'll be separating Pike's biography into his various careers.
ALBERT PIKE -- SOLDIER
THE MEXICAN WAR
Albert Pike participated in two wars, fighting in one battle in each war.
At the start of the war with Mexico in 1845, Pike was captain of the Little Rock Guards. He had assumed command in 1842, and thereafter the unit was sometimes known as "Pike's Artillery." The Little Rock Guards was founded in 1834 for social and ceremonial uses such as honor guards, parades and celebrations. The recruits were boys aged eight to fourteen.
When Pike took over, the troops were of course eighteen to twenty-four and old enough to be real soldiers; so they recieved a militia commission which allowed them the use of the federal arsenal and the muskets and cannons to fire noisy salutes in honor of visiting dignitaries. The paperwork, however, considered them real soldiers in the real militia, and three years later when war broke out they were expected to show up when their country called. And they did, along with hundreds of others, massed into an Arkansas Volunteer Regiment. Pike outfitted the company from his own pocket and off they went to fight Santa Ana.
In those days, officers were elected rather than trained; and Pike, being an active Whig in a regiment full of Democrats, did not do well in the elections. Military command was considered part of a political career. A guy named Archibald Yell was elected colonel. He had fought in the war of 1812. He was former Governor of the state, and was a congressman, so concievably he was better qualified for leadership. Democrats John S. Roan and Solon Borland were elected lieutenant colonel and major. They made Pike a captain and put him in charge of the Little Rock Guards, who had been redesignated cavalry because the Governor wouldn't let them take the two cannon with them.
Yell, Roan and Borland were popular with the troops because they didn't insist on drill or discipline or sobriety or military protocol or even the digging of latrines. In other words, militarily they were complete ninnies and were preparing their troops for a huge disappointment on the battlefield. For example, leading up to the battle of Buena Vista, Solon Borland and his scouting party of 34 were all captured. He had made camp for the night without posting guards or pickets. He woke up the next day surrounded by the Mexican army. Several thousand Mexican soldiers had just walked up on them while they slept.
Believe it or not, upon returning from the war this military genius became a U.S. Senator.
Pike managed to keep his company in some good order. He drilled constantly and kept his men busy doing things like cleaning themselves and their equipment and caring for their horses. Everything he knew about soldiering came from books. He read military manuals and applied the principles. Apparently he did that well enough, and his company was considered competent enough to detatch from the Arkansas Volunteer Regiment and use them separately or attatched to units of army regulars. So now we have the Arkansans in two groups, a regiment of undisciplined rabble under Yell and a company of well-drilled, untested recruits under Pike.
General Wool called Yell's regiment "The Mounted Devils" not because they were tenacious fighters, but because he absolutely despised them. They were loud, dirty, disobedient, disorderly and dangerous. One of them had even pulled a gun and threatened to shoot the general in his tent. They so offended him that he ordered Yell to make camp on high ground away from the rest of the army.
When the time came for the big battle at Buena Vista, Wool posted Yell way out on the flank. Any student of Napoleanics will tell you that the most dangerous place to be is on the flank, way out on the end of the line. It's every army's natural vulnerability and it's bound to be attacked. So Johnny Wool had put his worst troops at the most critical point. The Rackensacks had one shoulder against the mountains and the other shoulder against a regiment of Indiana Volunteers.
Meanwhile, Pike's bunch were in the rear, attatched to a regular army cavalry regiment under Colonel May, guarding supply lines. The Mexicans massed an army of 20,000 against an American force of 4,500 which straddled a narrow mountain pass. There were a few probes and skirmishes in the afternoon, but not much serious fighting.
In the evening, General Wool was made aware that the Mexicans had found a canyon pass that would allow them to circle around Yell's end of the line during the night. Wool ordered reinforcements, including Pike's company, to the east flank.
Sure enough, as soon as it was light enough to see, Yell found himself pinched between a battery of Mexican eight-pounders positioned on the slopes to his left and the dreaded Mexican Lancers directly in front. This was a really bad position to be in, because the cannon fire was running down the ranks. One solid shot cannon ball fired head on might kill only one man, but the same ball fired along the ranks might cause dozens of casualties.
For the first time in the war, Yell did the proper thing and ordered his men to retreat to a position outside the effective range of the cannonade so they'd only have to deal with the lancers. Unfortunately, the lack of training, drill and discipline took its toll at exactly that moment. When Yell's regiment heard the word "retreat," a lot of them thought that meant to Little Rock. They fired a hastily aimed volley and they made their way to the rear, leaving a rather smaller band of Arkansans along with the Indiana regiment to face the best of the Mexican army.
A lancer, by the way, is a strong horse carrying a strong horseman carrying a long stick that has a sharp point. This lancer rides around on the battlefield trying to poke people with this stick so that they die. In 1846, the Mexicans were the very best at this game. The very next thing that happened after a big hunk of the volunteers broke and ran was that Archibald Yell got gruesomely poked in the face by at least one of these lancers. At right is a banner at the Old Statehouse Museum depicting that event. People will try to tell you that he was killed leading a glorious cavalry charge against impossible odds, but that's from the poetry, not from the history. (For one thing, Yell was on horseback, but the AVR were fighting dismounted that day.) Yell was trying to rally his dispersed troops. He got caught out in front by himself and the Mexican lancers did what they do.
With Solon Borland captured and Archibald Yell dead, it fell to John S. Roan to supervise the route of the remaining volunteers. Keep that little piece of information on file. It'll be important later. A few battlefield accounts mention the Arkansas and Indiana regiments fighting a tough, but futile retreat. However, later accounts from the AVR participants themselves and an inquest by the Army into the regiment's battlefield performance all confirmed the pessimistic version of the story.
The neighboring Indiana company decided to stay and fight, but was greatly outnumbered and was being pushed back and back and was on the verge of being overwhelmed when who should ride up in fine heroic form but Albert Pike's Little Rock Guards. With a hearty Hi-Yo Silver, blazing guns and flashing blades, and a specially designed melon-baller, Pike and his Little Rock Guards charged into the thick of the fighting, drove back the more numerous Lancers, put them to flight, and saved the whole damn battle for the Americans.
Not really. That was the cinematic version, and similar embellishments have found their way into the literature, but that's not quite how it happened.
Pike's company (although I think a cavalry unit of that size is properly called a squadron) was only about a fifth of the reinforcements that arrived in the nick-o-time. With Pike were May's Dragoons and a mighty respectable regiment of Mississippi Rifles, led by Jefferson Davis, who later became President, kind of. The lancers were scattered and disorganized after their own charge and apparently were not expecting to see a thousand American horsemen arriving four abreast and deploying in organized formations. They withdrew out of rifle range in order to regroup. The two sides stood looking at each other for a while. At that point the lancers still far outnumbered the Americans facing them, even with the reinforcements. Historians argue about why they chose to break off the attack and leave the field to the Americans while they held numerical superiority, but that's just what they did. They turned and vanished up a narrow mountain pass.
Over the years and with many retellings of the story, an American cavalry charge began to appear at this point in the story, but again that's the result of the requirements of epic poetry, not of history. Pike's squadron did not chase the lancers off the field. The American reinforcements arrived and deployed. One volley was fired at the retreating Mexicans as the Americans regained their former lines. The lancers looked at the situation and then made an unhurried exit. My suspicion is that the Mexicans thought they smelled a trap. Here they were chasing these auxiliaries and ersatztroppen all around the field. Then when the lancers are scattered all over creation, all of a sudden Papa Bear shows up. There must be a huge pile of reinforcements lurking behind a rock somewhere. No professional general would put these lousy troops guarding the flank. It has to be a trap. There's no other reasonable explanation.
There was one more heavy Mexican assault just down the line, but after that the cohesion of the Mexican army broke down. Small units maneuvered and attacked autonomously and with little coordination. When night fell, Santa Ana pulled up stakes and left. Battle over. America wins.
Pike wrote to Little Rock a scathing criticism of his fellow officers, blaming them for every failure. Roane took the brunt of the blame, since Yell was dead and Borland was a prisoner at the time of the battle. Roane spread the word the Pike had accused Yell's regiment of cowardice and as if that weren't enough, he had written to the Little Rock Banner that Pike's company had not even been near enough to the battle to hear the gunfire. In fact, Pike spent much of the day getting shot at, though his duties never involved heavy fighting like that encountered by Yell's regiment.
Pike challenged Roane to a Duel. Roane accepted. The duellists, seconds, physicians and a large crowd of spectators showed up on a sandbar in the Arkansas River across from Fort Smith, 29 July 1847. The men fired at each other from ten paces and missed. The pistols were reloaded. Again they both missed from ten paces. As the guns were being loaded a third time, the two surgeons conspired to put an end to the duel by threatening to leave the field if the duelists continued with their foolishness.
Here's Pike's quote: "I want one more fire at him and will hit him in a vital part. I believe he has tried to kill me; I have not tried to hit him." A moment later, Pike relented and both parties agreed to call off the duel, although nobody was quite sure about the rules of dueling and how to end it without compromising the honor of either side.
Believe it or not, immediately after the war Roane was elected Governor.
THE CIVIL WAR
Pike had a much harder time with his command in the Civil War. He was placed in command of Confederate forces in the Indian Territory and led the only regiment of Indians to fight as regular infantry in the Civil War.
As southern states began to secede, the Confederate planners recognized the importance of Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. If it sided with the Union, then Union forces could move freely along the western Arkansas and northern Texas borders, tying up Confederate troops that would have to counter those moves. If the Indians sided with the Confederates and defended their own territory, then the Confederates could threaten Missouri the same way. If the Indians remained neutral, at least there would be a buffer zone making it harder to attack Texas and western Arkansas. That would at least free up resources for the more important effort in the east.
Pike was sent to get the Indians to sign on with the Confederates. He was a natural choice for the job because he had represented Indians in their complaints against the federal government for years. The Indians knew and trusted him. He argued that the United States had broken treaty after treaty with the Indians and they could better trust the Southerners. Also, many of the Indian tribes had traditions of slavery, and that gave them some interests common with the Southern cause, that a Northern victory might result in the loss of their human chattel.
There were counter arguments, of course. A lot of the Indians thought it would be a great idea to sit on the sidelines and watch the whites beat the crap out of each other. Many influential headmen were shrewd enough to stall until they got a sense of who was going to win. The first few big battles were huge confederate victories, and the Civilized Tribes allowed Pike to recruit Indians on the condition that they be paid, armed, fed and outfitted at the expense of the CSA and that they not be deployed outside Indian Territory. Pike agreed to those conditions on behalf of his government, but of course military emergencies elsewhere resulted in the diversion of supplies to other places, and as fresh troops were taken out of Arkansas and sent to fight in the east, somebody had to fill in the spaces when the Yanks threatened from Missouri. In violation of the agreement, Pike's superiors ordered him to take his Indian regiment into Arkansas and report to General Earl Van Dorn.
This was really bad for Pike. Before the war, Van Dorn had commanded a massacre of a peaceful Comanche camp, and the Indians under Pike knew who Van Dorn was. And now he was their commanding officer. On top of that, Pike had written a formal complaint to the War Departmment accusing Van Dorn of atrocity. Pike's letter had been file 13nd and Van Dorn was officially commended for his "gallant exploit."
Van Dorn kept Pike out of the loop. He was never involved in planning or briefings. He was never shown a map or apprised of any aspects of the overall plan of battle, nor did they let him join in any reindeer games. He was Van Dorn's red-headed step-general. This was going to prove costly to Van Dorn later on.
Van Dorn's treatment of Pike was not altogether without grounds. Pike was notoriously smug and insubordinate. He was always writing letters to newspapers and to the war department expressing some outrage at the behavior of his superiors, much as he had done during the Mexican War. He was once accused of, though not charged with, treason when he published a handbill complaining that the diversion of cash, arms and supplies promised to his brigade had left the Indian Territory virtually underdefended. I could also paraphrase numerous communications to his superiors this way, "After giving careful consideration to your orders, I've decided to do something else."
So if Pike was your subordinate, you had yourself a handful. To give Van Dorn credit, his handling of a strong, independent personality like Pike was in its way reasonable. To involve Pike in the planning of a battle is to invite a debate with a man who, while merely a competent soldier, was one of the world's great debaters.
BATTLE OF PEA RIDGE
In March of 1862 Union General Curtis pushed his army south into Arkansas from Missouri. Confederate General Van Dorn learned of the incursion and moved north in hopes of catching and destroying pieces of Curtis' dispersed army as it moved. Because there were lots of Union sympathizers in the northwest counties of Arkansas, and also because Curtis had spies in the Confederate ranks, Curtis learned of the approach of Van Dorn in time to concentrate and fortify his troops on bluffs along Little Sugar Creek.
Van Dorn had superior numbers, but not enough to overwhelm the strong Union defensive positions. He developed a bold plan to march his army in the middle of the night in the wet and cold of early March on a road that would place his army at Curtis' rear. At daybreak he would occupy the heights above Curtis' army and also block his lines of communication and retreat.
Curtis was a professional soldier and as a precaution had sent men the day before to cut trees to block that road. Two huge timber roadblocks added four hours to Van Dorn's travel time. The front of the column was in position by daybreak, but the army was strung out along the road. In order to bring the trailing units to bear, Van Dorn ordered Pike and McCulloch (about half his army) to take a shortcut.
Van Dorn saw no massed movement to indicate that Curtis was aware of the move, and indeed Curtis had not moved his main force, thinking reports of movement represented a diversion. If McCulloch and Pike arrived as planned, they would descend on the fat Union supply train facing little or no resistance. There was a token Union force occupying the heights, guarding the supply train and communication routes. Van Dorn thought he had won.
While keeping most of his army in the fortifications, Curtis sent a significant force to meet what he thought was to be a raid on his supply train. One advance union brigade discovered McCulloch and Pike right here, less than two miles from the Union Supply train. Though badly outnumbered, the Union Brigade had no choice but to attack in hopes of disrupting the movement and alerting the rest of the army to the presence of this huge force in the Union rear. They opened fire with three cannon, taking the Confederates by surprise.
Pictured here is the spot at Pea Ridge National Military Park. The cannon in the foreground marks the approximate location of the union battery. Just where the road winds out of sight is the shortcut that Pike and McCulloch were to take.
The surprise didn't last long. It wasn't a minute before 3000 of McCulloch's cavalry charged the artillery position. Pike's Cherokees, without orders and much to Pike's surprise, charged as well. Pike had no choice but to follow and try to regain control of his men. In less time than it takes to tell, the Confederates had overwhelmed the Union artillery.
As if walking a mile in Archibald Yell's moccasins, Pike was in charge of troops culturally unaccustomed to military discipline. The Indians' code of warfare was built around raiding, which meant stopping to loot the goods and strip the bodies of conquered enemies. Their traditional war ethic also did not condemn things like the mutilation of the corpses of your enemies. Scalping, for instance. And later, Pike, who had accused Van Dorn of atrocities, would later himself be accused of atrocities because some of the Indians took scalps here.
Pike, who had experienced battle before, knew to expect a counterattack and tried to rally his men into a defensive formation. His troops were preoccupied, wandering around the field gathering trophies and loot, heeding orders from nobody at all when the counterattack came. The full Union brigade formed up into a battle line and the first cannonade dispersed McCulloch's cavalry and drove Pike's Indian troops off the captured cannons. They ran into the woods on the far side of the field on the left of the picture above and hid behind trees and stayed there for pretty much the rest of the day.
Both the Confederate Division Commander McCulloch and his second in command were killed by Union musketry and McCulloch's other brigadier had been captured, leaving Pike in command of the whole division. Remember that because of animosity between Pike and Van Dorn, Pike had been excluded from briefings and planning sessions. Pike didn't know the battle plan and he pretty much just sat there and let a smaller Union force tie down most of a Confederate division for the duration of the battle.
A coordinated assault had been hastily arranged, but McCulloch's second, who was to lead the western half of the charge was killed just before the assault was to begin, so the eastern half of the charge took off unsupported. And since the eastern half of the charge was made through dense forest, they had no idea they were out there by themselves. The Union defenders folded in around them and the assault failed.
Pike, who had never had any trouble acting on his own initiative before, just hunkered down and waited for orders, not realizing until about three in the afternoon that he was now the ranking officer in the division. By evening he decided the position could not be held and he organized the retreat of his brigade and McCulloch's division and tried to reach Van Dorn overnight.
Meanwhile, two miles away at Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn was winning his half of the battle, although at a heavy cost. General Curtis managed to flip his Union army around and gain the heights in time to avoid disaster. There was hard fighting all day and the cost was high, but a final Confederate assault drove the Union forces off the heights.
Turns out the cost had been too great. Pike and McCulloch had failed to arrive all day, and Van Dorn had counted on them capturing the Union supply train. His own supply train had been lost in the march in the night. His men had been issued three days' rations, but that was five days ago. They were low on ammunition. They had not even brought tents when they set out, so hurried were they to stop the Union advance.
The Union, on the other hand, had plenty of everything, including two divisions that had not taken part in the previous day's battle; and when they begain their attack the next morning, they dumped it all on Pea Ridge. The attack began with a two hour bombardment, the most intense in the war up to that time. When the infantry advanced, the Confederates had nothing left with which to fight and were driven easily from the heights.
Some confederate units managed orderly retreats, others melted into the countryside. Pike and his Cherokees made their way back to Indian Territory.
Pike's conduct came under scrutiny in the aftermath of the battle. After Buena Vista, Roane had borne the criticism for the conduct of his unit for no better reason than all the other officers had been killed or captured. Fifteen years later it was Pike's turn. He had failed to maintain order among his troops, he had failed to take command until late in the day, and once he did take command he showed a lack of initiative.
According to the Federal tribunal that tried Pike in absentia for atrocity, at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Cherokee troops under his command killed a handful of wounded Union soldiers and took at most eight scalps from dead soldiers. There was no southern testimony in this finding.
Pike himself was horrified at the accusation and requested an investigation by his own side. He was able to confirm one scalping and one killing of a wounded Union soldier. A packet of confederate testimony was sent to the Union court, but the verdict was announced before the southern testimony arrived.
The Indian troops were untrained and undisciplined and their tradition of warfare allowed and even encouraged the mutilation of corpses. The Indians under Pike's command were from what were then called the Five Civilized Tribes, and Pike assumed these traditions to be in the past.
Whether it was one scalp or eight is not the point. Pike was not in control of his troops. It's not a good excuse, but Pike did not order his troops to take scalps, as as alleged by the North. In fact, he hadn't even ordered them to charge.
The newspaper accounts were more lurid and exaggerated the farther north and east the newspaper was. In St. Louis the paper reported Pike's 2000 Indians scalped 18 Union soldiers. By the time the story got to Chicago, the report claimed 3000 Indians took 100 scalps, impossible since there were only 24 Union killed in the regiment attacked by the Indian troops. In reality there were 600 Indians taking at most 8 scalps. Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers.
Pike was not mentioned in Van Dorn's official report. Not at all, even though nearly every other officer was praised individually for their action at Pea Ridge. While Pike could do nothing about the Yankee press calling him a war criminal, support from Van Dorn could have kept his own countrymen from believing the accusations. Instead, Van Dorn's silence on the subject seemed to Pike a tacit condemnation. Perhaps it was Van Dorn's revenge for Pike's letter about the comanche raid four years earlier.
Pike spent most of the rest of the war in Indian Territory, reading history, writing letters, shifting supplies from one cantonment to the other. General Curtis (the same Union General from Pea Ridge) was threatening the northern border from Kansas. There were some raids and skirmishes, but a major invasion was avoided by giving false reports to his spies. With each rumor and report he would request reinforcements and move his army to counter a phantom threat, which of course would take time.
Van Dorn was eager to get to where the real fighting was, so he stripped Arkansas of men and supplies, crossed the Mississippi and took his army east. He was eventually shot by a jealous husband.
Eventually, a union force did invade through Kansas, and because of Pike's decision to make his headquarters near the Texas border, could have marched into Fort Smith unopposed. This time, though, a personality conflict between two Union officers caused the invasion to self-destruct.
Since Van Dorn had taken arms and supplies meant to defend Arkansas, General Hindman, now charged with the defense of Arkansas, commandeered supplies and arms intended for the defense of Indian Territory. Pike resigned his commission over this issue, moved to a spot in south Arkansas near the Confederate State Capitol of Washington City, and pretty much sat out the rest of the war.
RTJ -- 5/1/2006
Click here to read corrections to bizarre misinformation that circulates about Albert Pike.
Alsopp, Fred W.; Life Story of Albert Pike, The; Parke, Harper, Audigier and Price, Little Rock, 1920.
Brown, Walter Lee; A Life of Albert Pike; University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, AR;1997.
Brown, Walter Lee; "The Mexican War Experiences of Albert Pike and the Mounted Devils of Arkansas," Arkansas historical Quarterly v. 12, Winter, 1953, pp 301-315.
Duncan, Robert Lipscomb; Reluctant General: The Life and Times of Albert Pike; E. P. Dutton and Co., New York, 1961.
Shea, William L.; The Campaign for Pea Ridge, Civil War Series; Eastern National, 2001.